Formed in 1975 by David Hinds and Selwyn Brown in the Handsworth section of Birmingham, England, Steel Pulse is most noted within reggae circles for being one of the first international bands to mix reggae’s African, salsa, and calypso beats with pop and rock music. Steel Pulse established themselves as one of reggae’s major forces throughout the 1980s and—at U.S. President Bill Clinton’s request—was the first reggae band to perform for a presidential inauguration.
Although other reggae bands—such as the Wailers—fused rock with reggae in the 1970s, it was Steel Pulse who focused most intensely on the mix. When English reggae bands were gaining international attention in the mid-1970s, few of them allied themselves with England’s punk rock movement. Steel Pulse, however, frequently opened concerts for punk rock bands like Ultravox, XTC, the Stranglers, and Generation X—and were as likely to be part of a punk rock concert as a reggae festival.
Members include Kevin Batchelor (born December 19, 1960, in Missouri; joined group 1989), trumpet; Selwyn “Bumbo” Brown (born June 4, 1956, in London, England), keyboards, vocals; Alvin Ewen (born August 27, 1961, in Birmingham, England; joined group 1987), bass; David Hinds (born June 15, 1956, in Birmingham, England), rhythm guitar, lead vocals, songwriter; Gerry Johnson (born March 23, 1959, in New York; joined group 1990), saxophone; Phonso Martin (joined band in 1977; left group 1991), vocals, percussion; Sidney Mills (born January 15, 1959; joined group 1990), keyboards; Steve “Grizzly” Nisbett (born March 15, 1948, in Nevis, West Indies; joined band 1991), percussion; Clifford “Moonie” Pusey (born September 25, 1953, in Bridgeport, CT; joined group 1990), lead guitar.
Group formed in the Handsworth section of Birmingham, England, 1975; released first album, Handsworth Revolution, on Island/Mango label, 1978; switched to Elektra and released album True Democracy, 1982; signed with MCA and released album State of Emergency, 1988; recorded single “Can’t Stand It” for film Do the Right Thing, 1989; played at U.S. President Bill Clinton’s inauguration and appeared on the Tonight Show, 1993.
Awards: Grammy Award for best reggae album, 1986, for Babylon the Bandit; Grammy Award nominations, 1991, for Victims, and 1992, for Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris-Elysee Montmartre.
Steel Pulse has consistently emphasized societal problems through their lyrics. Unlike the ethnically mixed, England-based ska groups that gained popularity in the late 1970s—like the Specials and the English Beat-Steel Pulse’s members are all of Jamaican ancestry and have African-centered influences. In spite of this, Steel Pulse’s first two albums on the Mango label in 1978 and 1979, Handsworth Revolution and Tribute to the Martyrs, have a ska beat and feel to them, which reflects the era in which they started.
Steel Pulse’s first and second albums cemented their reputation as a reggae band with punk rock and ska undertones. Their lyrics shared an outrage with punk rock musicians, their confrontational style was borne of rock music, and their beat was a mixture of African reggae and England’s “Two-Tone” ska music. While other reggae bands at the time were focusing on harmonic melody, heavy bass, and slow Rastafarian drum beats, Steel Pulse fused reggae with a faster, more confrontational rock-inspired delivery.
Although Steel Pulse’s first two albums were well received, the songs on these albums were created more with live concerts in mind than for dancing. As a result, Steel Pulse had a tremendous audience base for touring but did not fare as well on radio or in dance halls. The singles “Handsworth Revolution,” “Sound System,” “Ku Klux Klan,” and “Soldiers” from these first two albums would set the standards for their live performances for years to come and would prove to be the most enduring.
Reggae Fever—known as Caught You in England-was released in 1980 and was the band’s last recording on the Mango label. The album’s sales were disappointing. Reggae Fever was the result of an effort to smooth out Steel Pulse’s rougher edges, characterized by a freewheeling style, and the album did not spark as much interest as their previous two albums. When Mango Records collected the best of Steel Pulse for its Reggae Greats album in 1985, the label focused primarily on Steel Pulse’s early Handsworth Revolution album instead of their later material. Steel Pulse opened for the Talking Heads at Radio City Music Hall in 1980, which brought them further to the attention of the American audience.
Steel Pulse performed at the 1981 Reggae Sunsplash and won over the audience. Reggae Report’s Lee O’Neill wrote, “Steel Pulse—according to all accounts—stunned the audience.” Soon after the concert, Elektra released Reggae Sunsplash ’81 in 1982 with four Steel Pulse songs featured on the collection. That same year, Steel Pulse released True Democracy on the Elektra label. Their first album for a new label proved to be a redemptive effort: it was energetic, reminiscent of their early, lauded material and marked by a new, rigorous production style. Rolling Stone’s Daisann McLane praised it as “the best album from one of the most important U.K.-based reggae bands of the ’80s.”
Earth Crises, released in 1984, was a turning point for Steel Pulse. For the first time, the band wrote a love song, incorporated soul and rhythm and blues melodies, emphasized bass and drums, and featured a new producer, Jimmy Haynes. Haynes—who often played lead guitar for the musician Aswad—attempted to repackage Steel Pulse into a more digestible, less hardcore, musical product. As a result, this was their first album that had an upbeat, danceable tempo.
In 1985 Steel Pulse released Babylon the Bandit, which was also experimental. The band won a best reggae album Grammy Award for this album in 1986. The lyrics weren’t as fiery as they were in the band’s early material, and the musical beat was broadened into a deep, soulful sound.
State of Emergency, released in 1988, had a different approach because Steel Pulse had a new producer and had switched over to the MCA label. They incorporated their previous hard-edged rock style with a rhythm and blues sound. After the release of State of Emergency, Steel Pulse recorded the single “Can’t Stand It” in 1989 for director Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, which is available to date only on the film’s soundtrack.
Steel Pulse released Victims on the MCA label in 1991; it featured both love songs and dance singles on one side and rock-influenced, political songs on the other. Victims was nominated for a Grammy Award. One of the album’s tracks, “Taxi Driver,” addresses the racism that people—particularly those with dreadlocks—face when trying to secure a cab in New York City. Steel Pulse’s lead singer, David Hinds, embroiled himself in a million-dollar class-action lawsuit against New York City’s Taxi & Limousine Commission. To draw attention to this plight, Hinds offered to demonstrate for the media—after the release of Victims —how arduous it was for him to hail a cab. As a dozen reporters and camera people crowded around him on a New York street, Hinds dramatically held out an arm for a cab. As a result of the crowd, cameras, and carnival atmosphere, a curious cab driver stopped immediately for Hinds.
In 1992 Steel Pulse released Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris-Elysee Montmartre, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for best reggae album, marking Steel Pulse’s third Grammy Award nomination. A live concert in France celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia—the spiritual leader of the Rastafarian movement—as well as other black leaders such as Steven Biko and Peter Tosh. In keeping with their tradition of addressing issues, the band released Vex in 1994, which Billboard praised for its balanced mix of political perceptions and “heartening fun.” The reviewer also noted that the song “New World Order” from the album “has the potential to become a modern anthem for social justice in Britain.”
Steel Pulse was the first reggae band to perform on the Tonight Show. They also made history as the first band to perform for a presidential inauguration when they played at the White House on January 20, 1993, for President Clinton.
Steel Pulse began as a band with a political message, and they may have been ahead of their time in that respect. “When I listen to bands like Public Enemy [or] Arrested Development,” Hines told Reggae Report’s Lee O’Neill, “it’s like the flavor we were trying to come with in our heyday…. [They have] given us more encouragement, more insight into our next album, at least politically…. We can’t sound like we’re from the ’80s, we have to move on.”
Handsworth Revolution, Island/Mango, 1978.
Tribute to the Martyrs, Island/Mango, 1979.
Reggae Fever (released in England as Caught You), Island/Mango, 1980.
True Democracy, Elektra, 1982.
Earth Crisis, Elektra, 1984.
Babylon the Bandit, Elektra, 1986.
State of Emergency, MCA, 1988.
Victims, MCA, 1991.
“Can’t Stand It,” Do the Right Thing (soundtrack), Motown, 1991.
Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris-Elysee Montmartre, MCA, 1992.
Vex, MCA, 1994.
Billboard, November 5, 1994.
Detroit News and Free Press, December 5, 1992.
Ebony, September 1991.
New American, January 7, 1993.
New City/Chicago, March 4, 1992.
New York Daily News, May 14, 1993.
New York Newsday, July 12, 1994.
Reggae Report, November 1992.
Rolling Stone, February 24, 1994.
Washington Afro-American, January 30, 1993.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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